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Meritocracy: Definition, concepts and ideology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Society
Wordcount: 1502 words Published: 25th May 2017

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Meritocracy as an ideology

Meritocracy can refer to an idealised society where discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, gender, age, and other irrelevant characteristics is completely absent. Merit is the encompassing value, the basic and morally correct criterion for any and all social classifications, particularly in respect to socioeconomic standing and in public space. A notion, emphasising societal consensus on the means and processes of selection for particular roles through a system of sifting, sorting, and rewarding talent and ability, motivated by competition for qualifications that in turn structure access to wealth, prestige, and personal satisfaction. It is conceived as a repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status. A meritocracy resembles aristocracy in the classical sense of the term meaning “rule by the best.” What has happened over the centuries, however, is that aristocracy has become associated with hereditary privilege and a rigid class system. Instead of this, a meritocracy promotes worthy individuals regardless of which social strata they happen to be born in and each individual has good fortune in proportion to the individual’s deservingness (Rawls, 1999, Nozick 1974, Miller 1999).

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IQ tests primarily tap analytical, logic-based reasoning; and surely that kind of cognitive ability is related to performance in many job settings. But other kinds of cognitive ability are also related to performance – and thus also represent merit. For instance: imagination, practical sense, and the ability to interpret others’ perspectives. By the same token, the effort component of Young’s formulation suggests that a number of personality factors may figure into a reasonable conception of merit. For example, being conscientious may enhance job performance. Of course, some individual traits and social skills may be rewarded because they reflect conformity to arbitrary group norms. “It is not clear why the term merit should be identified so closely with mental ability as distinct from many other conditions and traits that improve the chances of social and economic success” (Hauser et al’s, 2000, p. 203). David Miller (1996, 300) eluding on Walzer (1983) has indicated that a meritocracy is not only more stable but also more socially just if there are a number of socially recognised forms of merit: ‘economic contribution would be one kind of merit, education and scholarship another, artistic achievement a third, public service yet another, and so forth.’

However these other conditions and traits do not contribute to a “fair opportunity”. In Rawls view, the correlation between one’s social origins and one’s outcome in life is zero in a meritocracy and as long as some form of the family exists in society fair opportunity cannot be achieved as (Rawls 1971, 64). The social context within which individuals grow up influences the achievements of equally competent persons. Success in the labour market is transmitted from parents to children, and the advantages of the children of successful parents go considerably beyond the benefits of the best education, wealth and genetic cognitive ability. Many of the criteria associated with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy; what is called individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. Among these, for example, one might list ambition or drive, perseverance, responsibility, personal attractiveness, and physical or artistic skills or talents, along with access to social support and to favourable social and economic networks and resources. Access to education is partly defined by inheritance as much research has demonstrated (Bowles and Gintis, 2002; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990; Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997; Sacks, 2003; Ballantine 2001). Compiling evidence from other studies Herrnstein concludes that 80% of the differences in IQ among individuals is explained by inherited factors and 15% is explained by environmental factors (Herrnstein 1971, 171). Children from the upper class get upper class education, middle class children get middle class education, working class people get working class education, and poor people get poor education. Privileged young people can perceive reachable goals and develop lofty aspirations because they tend to benefit from high expectations and support networks from the family and social milieu, as well as extensive economic and educational resources. Those who have the resources, via their parental background, will move through higher education, get well paid jobs, and postpone family plans until they are well into their thirties, building their financial and cultural capital significantly prior to family formation. Inheritance may provide access to powerful forms of social capital (who you know) and cultural capital (what you know). Bourdieu & Passeron (1990) indicate that students who lack the required knowledge and skills with which to successfully navigate the parameters of middle class culture inevitably fail at school. It therefore seems that unequal educational opportunity is the driver of individual achievement. Research shows that as class rises so does the level of education. As a consequence, the expansion of higher education will broaden the gulf between rich and poor (Blanden et al. 2005). So achievement capacities are ascribed to social class. Thus, IQ tests measure intelligence as a reflection of inherent intellectual capacity combined with environmental influences. Thus parents can predispose their children to succeed or fail in life as they are a part of the environment that affect the abilities that children attain. Thus the first and foremost among non-merit factors is the effect of social class at birth on future life. Therefore truly equalizing children’s environments in an effort to create a system with equal opportunities for all would mean having to eliminate the family. Meritocracy thus could lead to a hereditary caste system that, far from promoting social mobility, actually makes social advancement nearly impossible for the lower orders. This could be the case if wealth and social position are or primarily distributed by unchangeable genetic characteristics of individuals. This argument can be reworked into the form of a Hernstein’s syllogism:

  1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and
  2. If success requires those abilities, and
  3. If earnings and prestige depend on success,
  4. Then social standing (which reflects earnings and prestige) will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people. (Herrnstein 1971, 197-8)

This implies that absolute equality of opportunity is an ideal that cannot be achieved. (Loury 1977, p. 176).

For John Rawls, the question of distributive justice is rather different. He is not content to say that any person begins at some point in the process of acquisition and then is merely constrained by a set of rules and procedures to ensure fairness. Rather, the socioeconomic position of the agent is also considered. Rawls bases his query on how the agent is presented with the distribution of talents and social position. His conclusion is that these distributions are accidental and arbitrary. It is an accident that someone is born with whatever natural traits he may possess.

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The question is raised whether a meritocracy based on natural abilities is thus unfair. Some might contend, for example, that even if we do not deserve our natural abilities it is not unfair if we reap the rewards of those abilities because the system of reward is independent of the system of deserts. However, Rawls makes the case that social position is also random and arbitrary. The fact that natural abilities may or may not be rewarded in that society is an accident. To be rewarded based merely on an accident is not deserved. Thus, a meritocracy that is based on reward from undeserved social position is similarly unfair.

Therefore, both natural abilities and social position may not be the basis of distributive justice because they are unfair. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted. The individual cannot help how she begins life. Why make her “pay” for her positive talents and advantages? The rectification of these disparities in Rawls is his difference principle that makes all inequalities subject to the stipulation that the least advantaged will benefit from them.


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